Thursday, June 26, 2003

Hindmarsh Island, culture warriors and developers

Margaret Simons has an interesting Op Ed piece in today’s Age.

The “sneering” in the title to her piece refers to the idiom of the Right’s “culture warriors” – a rather inexact term for general usage, but one that is appropriate enough to describe the small and interlocking group who were vehement opponents of the Hindmarsh Island “secret women’s business”. The author scores her best, elegant home run with this summation of the idiom:

It is not the language of conversation. It is the language of propaganda.

In one important way, however, “it” is not the language of propaganda at all – there is no mass audience anywhere on a map of all possible culture-war positions on Hindmarsh Island. So what are/were the culture warriors fighting for? Apart from the usual suspect – the mining industry, naturally concerned in a hip-pocket sense about another pro-Indigenous precedent – there doesn’t appear to be an easily-found answer on why the Right went in so hard on Hindmarsh Island, and still continues to do so.

One possible explanation is that the peak year of the affair, 1995, was more than coincidental with the lead-up to a Liberal government being installed in March 1996. Hindmarsh Island was never a national electoral wedge issue, but it could have usefully served as a behind-the-scenes obstacle course and pecking-order setter-upperer for the incoming regime. If so, it has had surprising longevity – both in terms of keeping the government more or less steady-state over seven long years, and in the meagreness and tardiness of political favours being repaid (Ron Brunton was only recently appointed to the ABC board, despite having long ago arguably earned his Hindmarsh “stripes”).

My own preferred explanation for the Right’s near-obsessive hold to Hindmarsh is more prosaic than career jockeying and self-interest. If the Australian movie “The Castle” (1997) told the fable of a small guy successfully, and against the odds, taking on The Big End of Town, the Hindmarsh Island bridge affair was a narrative for the Right that told exactly the opposite. Somehow, a few Ngarrindjeri women were cast as “The Big End of Town” and an affluent property developer couple became the ones fighting over a line in the sand, a point ostensibly more one of principle than money.

How was this spectacular substitution achieved, without anyone seemingly noticing? Simple – much the same thing was going on in a thousand other places in Australia at the same time. Development became – and remains – a cult, a thing quite removed from financial security, wealth creation or housing need. There were, and are, still lots of sleepy fifties-beach-shack style places around the Australian coastline, but none that could as inappropriately be given the Gold Coast marina treatment as an island at the mouth of Australia’s great river. This wasn’t about property speculation, or even just untrammelled greed – Hindmarsh Island was a line in the sand to end all lines in the sand.

We all wear white shoes now.

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